Scores of Pakistani parliamentarians who faked university qualifications could be unseated in a growing political crisis with echoes of the British expenses furore that has raised the prospect of change in government and even a fresh general election.
In an investigation ordered by the Supreme Court and a parliamentary committee, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is in the process of verifying whether the degrees purportedly held by Pakistan's 1,170 parliamentarians are genuine.
The degree requirement was initially put in place by the former dictator General Pervez Musharraf. So far, 37 have been confirmed fake and only 183 real, said a senior member of the HEC. The rest are still being verified. If the nearly one-fifth ratio holds, he added, "a government could lose its majority", referring to both the federal and Punjab governments. If the ratio rises, a political crisis could emerge, furnishing an opportunity for opponents of the government to push for mid-term elections, analysts say.
The crisis has unnerved senior members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by the President Asif Ali Zardari. Among those suspected of holding fake degrees are the Law minister Babar Awan, and Faryal Talpur, the President's sister and top party operator.
Javaid Laghari, the head of the HEC, is under intense pressure. According to his friends, the Education minister urged him to halt the process or slow it down for up to a year. Mr Laghari refused. Last week, his brother was suddenly picked up by unidentified men and held on corruption charges. On Friday, police raided his farmhouse, arresting eight servants.
General Musharraf's degree requirement was a cynical device introduced to exclude his opponents from office. It also helped boost his allies in the religious parties, whose madrassa experiences were certified as equivalent to a Master's or a PhD.
The condition was struck down within weeks of the 2008 election, after it belatedly occurred to the attorney general that, in a country with a 55 per cent literacy rate, the law was discriminatory. But two years on, even through the law is no longer in place, MPs found to have broken it at the time stand to be punished now.
In a series of amusing revelations that cut across party lines, one parliamentarian claimed to have earned his Master's in 2002, his Bachelor's in 2006, and his matriculation in 2007. He should be "disqualified for stupidity not fraud", Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, joked on Twitter. Another submitted three certificates, each with the same first two names but a different surname.
"It all makes sense now," said Marvi Memon, a prominent member of the opposition and a (genuine) London School of Economics graduate. "For the past two years I had trouble believing that I was sitting in a parliament full of graduates." Others see the scandal as a noisy distraction conjured by the media. "My position is clear," Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister of Baluchistan, growled at reporters recently. "A degree is a degree, whether it's real or fake!"
Still others sense a plot to discredit politicians. "The degree requirement was an imposition by a dictator that had no constitutional validity," said Farahnaz Ispahani, of the ruling PPP. "It is being invoked by those who have constantly assaulted our fledgling democracy... this has been a planned campaign to discredit politicians."
As the scandal intensifies, members of the ruling PPP can draw comfort from the fact that their future leader, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, recently graduated with a 2:1 in history from Christchurch College, Oxford. But at the age of 21, the only son of the slain leader Benazir Bhutto will have to wait four years to be eligible to stand for public office.